Widening Access to Scottish Higher Education: getting in, getting by and getting on

Scotland prides itself on its long standing tradition of support for higher education.  Much is made of the fact that tuition here is free, unlike in the rest of the UK where fees of up to £9,000 per annum are levied on students.  Indeed, there is much talk about how in Scotland tuition is based on the ‘ability to learn and not the ability to earn’.  But just how fair is access to higher education in Scotland?  Are we seeing a narrowing of class inequalities in participation rates amongst young people?  And what are the experiences of disadvantaged students once they are at university?  These were just some of the questions raised at a research seminar held here at the University of Edinburgh.

The seminar was hosted by the Centre for Research on Education, Inclusion and Diversity, headed by CREIDProfessor Sheila Riddell.  It featured a mix of key note speakers and panel discussions, and included university staff and students as well as representatives from government and public sector organisations with an interest in higher education.  The speakers were stimulating and engaging, and the panel discussions measured and thoughtful.  In this blog I’m going to highlight some of the key themes that emerged from a day that was packed full of fascinating insights and findings.

Sheila Riddell

Image: http://www.ed.ac.uk/education/rke/centres-groups/creid

Perhaps the major theme of the day was that inequalities persist in access to higher education.  In a spirited opening, Sheila Riddell pointed out that widening access has been intimately connected to the debate about free tuition in Scotland, with a presumption that the system is becoming fairer as a result of this policy.  But Sheila questioned this rhetoric and argued that pronounced inequalities in access to education in Scotland persist and, indeed, are broadly similar to the levels found in England.  Further, she suggested that free tuition is not sufficient to widen access and that the policy of charging tuition fees in England is actually much more progressive than the system in Scotland.  Perversely, it is the already advantaged students in Scotland who benefit most from free tuition – they do not have to borrow to cover the costs of tuition fees and their families are able to help with their living costs, allowing them to graduate with no or low debts.

And other papers too supported Sheila’s finding.  Lucy Hunter-Blackburn compared student funding across the UK for full-time students to show that the amount of upfront support available is a key driver of participation rates amongst disadvantaged students.  Again, in Scotland the people we say we care about the most – those from disadvantaged backgrounds – are the ones who end up borrowing the greatest amount to attend university.  But, crucially, she argued that funding affects more than just access to higher education, it also plays a role in how students participate once there.  So, for example, it affects where they live (at home versus in other accommodation), the kind of course they do, how much paid work they take on, and completion rates.  New kinds of inequalities are being crafted in and through the experiences of students once they are at university.   Similarly, Cristina Iannelli used data from the Scottish Longitudinal Study to look at if, and how, social class differences in subject choice at school affect inequalities in participation in higher education.  A clear pattern emerged where the students taking the so-called ‘facilitating subjects’ that are preferred by the Russell Group universities, are more likely to come from advantaged backgrounds.  One consequence, then, of these class-mediated curriculum structures is to restrict the opportunities for disadvantaged students to enter the more prestigious universities.  And, of course, the story about inequalities doesn’t end there.  Elisabet Weedon showed that disabled students from disadvantaged groups are ‘doubly disadvantaged’, while Laurence Lasselle showed the very real and powerful barriers that exist to disadvantaged young people from rural communities accessing higher education.

But what of the young people themselves?  What are their views about fairness in higher education, and their experiences once there?  Navigating the higher education system is clearly complex and Sarah Minty’s paper focused on young people’s perceptions of fairness.  In this she drew on interviews conducted with over 120 school pupils, the majority of whom wanted to go on to university.  While they see free tuition as a key factor in allowing anyone with the ability to go on to university, this rhetoric itself is problematic.  Placing the emphasis firmly on the individual – and on their ability, commitment and hard work – draws attention away from the wider power inequalities that play such a significant role in accessing higher education.  And what of the widening access students themselves who come in to university?  How do they fare once there?  To answer this question, Viv Cree reported on a longitudinal study of widening access students attending one Russell group university to suggest that ‘relationships matter’.  It is the relationships that students build with both staff and peers that are crucial to their experiences of university, and that often help them to succeed against the odds.

Overall the day was stimulating and raised some important questions about what kind of social justice we want our education system to support.  And I was struck throughout the day by various comments and asides from the participants about the kinds of inequalities we are (re)producuing here in Scotland.  As Ian Anderson, student discussant put it, we need to find ways to ensure ‘that the best poor kids with the best minds get to the best universities’.  Clearly we have a way to go.

About the author

Hazel-ChristieHazel Christie is based in the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh,  She has undertaken a number of research projects on the experiences of non-traditional students at university. 

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